Thursday, June 16, 2011

[tt] NS 2817: Tribal wars: DNA testing divides American Indians

I could tick off a long list of the legal issues, just barely skirted upon
here. The basic idea is that the feds cheated the Indians and have been
making amends, like giving tribes special privileges, like operating
casinos. This creates incentives to declare one belongs to a specific
tribe and for the tribe to resist diluting its advantage by questioning
the applicants. But the fact is, historically, tribes augmented their
members by accepting those with loose connections, sometimes more than
other times. (Same with the Jews.) So one big legal issue is whether to
make amends to those who belonged to the tribe a long time ago. And what
about those trying to join. (I don't know the extent to which the amends
are proportionate to the claimants.)

In any case the taxpayers are being socked for injustices neither they nor
their ancestors committed. It seems that, as far as paying up goes, the
non-Indians are collectively responsible.

I could continue.

NS 2817: Tribal wars: DNA testing divides American Indians
* 15 June 2011 by Linda Geddes, Coarsegold, California
[Editorial, "DNA and the need to belong," added.]

When American Indian identity is based on culture as much as blood,
gene tests can tear tribes apart

BLASTED from arid, rocky land where rattlesnakes once thrived, the
Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino stands like a modern castle in the
foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Saturday night and the car park is
heaving with gleaming pick-ups lured from the small towns of central

Though business is booming, the casino has opened up wounds in the
community of American Indians that build it on their land. The tribe
has resorted to desperate measures to stem the deluge of claims from
people hoping to be granted membership of the Chukchansi and
consequently a share of the casino's profits--which can amount to
several thousand dollars per person each year. This month, they will
vote on whether all new applicants should undergo a paternity test
to prove they are related to who they say they are. Would-be members
include many children and adolescents brought up within the tribe
for whom a negative result could be devastating.

Membership disputes are nothing new in Indian country. The
Chukchansi tribe has already expelled more than 500 members through
non-genetic means. Earlier this month ex-members of the Chukchansi
and several other tribes gathered at the Pechanga Resort and Casino
in Temecula, California, to protest against the culling of
California tribes: "There are tribes across our country that have
terminated a significant portion of their citizens. In California
alone, nearly 2500 Indian people have been stripped of their tribal
citizenship since the approval and expansion of Indian gaming,
stripping them of the right to vote, representation for their
allotted tribal lands and healthcare," said a statement issued by
the organisers of the protest.

Introducing genetics to solve enrolment disputes is a new twist in
the drama. Regardless of the result of this month's vote, Indian
communities are turning to DNA testing more and more. "Since we
started a casino a few years ago, all of a sudden we had Chukchansis
coming out of the woodwork," says Reggie Lewis, chairman of the
Chukchansi tribe. "We thought DNA would be a way to make sure that
we only get people who are qualified to be in the tribe in the

Those fighting expulsion suspect the proposed Chukchansi paternity
test is an attempt to purge yet more members from the rolls. Some
believe that DNA testing could create new problems for tribe
members, such as false paternity issues. Others worry that if tribes
base membership on genetics, the door might open for other racial
groups to claim tribal authority based on DNA.

Currently, there are 565 federally recognised tribes representing
around 1.9 million people in the US. Each operates as a sovereign
nation, with its own government and courts. The majority of tribes
admit new members by setting a minimum "blood quantum". For example,
if your mother is ¼ tribe x and your father is ¼ tribe x, that makes
you ¼ tribe x too. With tribal membership comes a cultural identity,
educational grants, healthcare, housing and assistance with

That American Indian tribes have embraced DNA technology may seem
surprising. "Culturally, it may seem a little weird that tribes are
using DNA testing, but tribes are not immune to what goes on in the
larger society," says James Mills, founder of Creating Stronger
Nations, which advises tribes on issues including membership.

The Chukchansi aren't alone. Other tribes, such as the Ho-Chunk in
Wisconsin and the Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina, also
require DNA tests for new members. To date, the only genetic tests
tribes routinely use are those to confirm parentage. But tribes say
they have been approached by people with no direct relative in the
tribe wanting to enrol on the basis of ancestry tests that suggest
American Indian heritage. The concept of finding such markers is
highly controversial because no one has ever found genetic markers
that can reliably distinguish between culturally defined races. Alex
Sinelnikov of Genetica Laboratories in Cincinnati, Ohio, says such
tests are not accurate enough to place an individual in a tribe with
any degree of certainty. "It's a fairy tale," he says.

Those tribes already using DNA testing say it is perfectly
reasonable to require proof that people are related to who they say
they are. "DNA testing has helped to settle membership disputes and
is a very scientific and clear-cut way to do so," says Sheila
Corbine, Attorney General for the Ho-Chunk tribe in Wisconsin Dells.
Potential problems can creep in, however, when existing members of a
tribe are ordered to undergo paternity testing (see "Not Indian

At the Creating Stronger Nations conference in Las Vegas last month,
the issue of DNA testing polarised opinion--particularly where
retrospective testing was concerned. "We use DNA for new members,
but we don't go backwards," says Janis Contraro of the Suquamish
tribe in Washington. "If you start paternity testing [existing
members] you open up a whole can of worms."

The Chukchansi tribal council, which also attended the conference,
disagrees. Since 2003, they have had a moratorium on new members
after their numbers swelled from around 30 in the early 1980s, to
more than 1000. A vote for DNA testing would involve amending their
constitution so that all potential members would have to undergo a
test--including children who have not been able to enrol since the
moratorium. A paternity test typically costs $200 to $400--no small
sum for the many American Indians who live on or below the poverty

"We know that at first there will be an emotional issue between
families," says Jennifer Stanley, secretary for the Chukchansi
tribe, "but in the end what we're hoping through DNA is a unified
tribe that actually knows who they are."

Few members are willing to discuss the matter openly, though
internet forums are providing one means for people to vent their
concerns. Many say that DNA testing could undermine centuries of
cultural values. Traditionally, culture and upbringing were often
considered as important as blood ties, if not more so, and many
tribes adopted non-Indians into their membership. One famous example
is the Cherokee-Freedmen--former black slaves of Cherokee Indians.

"DNA testing undermines the notion of what it is to be tribal," says
Kimberly TallBear of the University of California, Berkeley, who
studies the impact of science on American Indians and is an enrolled
member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe in South Dakota.

Cathy Corey, who was expelled from the Chukchansi tribe in 2005,
agrees. "Nothing within the Indian culture has ever been based on
DNA. Many adopted people into the tribe that had no blood or DNA

TallBear also cautions that focusing too narrowly on DNA could
ultimately undermine the very identities and sovereignty that tribal
councils are seeking to protect. "As DNA testing occurs more
frequently in Indian country, the legal and historical foundations
of tribal sovereignty may fade from view." She says anti-tribal
interests may argue that tribal benefits are race-based rights
rather than the result of historical treaties which could lead to
the dissolution of tribes or to other racial groups trying to claim
benefits. "Tribes have to create new traditions, but we should be
mindful of the type of traditions and culture we are creating," she

Not Indian Enough for the Ho-chunk

Daria Powless, 20, was brought up by her grandmother within the
Ho-Chunk tribe in Wisconsin. So when her right to belong to the
tribe was challenged by three other members, she thought nothing of
volunteering a DNA sample to prove that she was related to her
father, making her ¼ Ho-Chunk blood and eligible for membership.

Her DNA told a different story, revealing that her father was not in
fact her father. On top of the emotional trauma this revelation
caused, the Ho-Chunk tribe proceeded to try and expel her, as she no
longer met the blood quantum for membership.

This scenario is being repeated across the US (see main story), but
using DNA as a tool for confirming membership of a tribe is
relatively new.

In 2009 the Ho-Chunk Nation inserted a requirement for the DNA
testing of new applicants into its written constitution. The tribe
can also ask an existing member to take a paternity test--if at
least three members testify under oath that the person can't be a
member of the tribe. "Ho-Chunk Nation has the authority to determine
who shall be eligible for membership and the methods for how
membership will be determined," says Sheila Corbine, Attorney
General for the Ho-Chunk Nation. "The tribal membership often has
information about children that were claimed as biological children
when they were not."

This is what happened in the Powless case. "There is no implication
that Ms Powless deliberately misled the tribe," says Corbine, "but
that still does not negate the fact that she does not contain the
requisite blood quantum, since the person she had always assumed to
be her father was the parent with Ho-Chunk ancestry."

Powless is waiting for the tribe to put her expulsion to a ballot,
and a handful of other members are awaiting hearings following DNA
tests. If two-thirds of general council members vote in favour,
Powless will lose her membership and the benefits that go with it,
including healthcare, eligibility for housing, education
scholarships, voting rights and per capita payments of several
thousand dollars per year.

While Powless declined to comment on the matter, Cathy Corey, who
was expelled from the Chukchansi tribe in 2005, says the emotional
effects can cut far deeper than material benefits. "It's like having
your heart torn out," she says. "The emotional pain that it causes
never goes away."
DNA and the need to belong

Genetics should be kept out of discussions on race and tribe

HOW would you feel if your government declared that you had to
emigrate if your father wasn't your biological parent? This
unpalatable scenario is already playing out within some American
Indian tribes.

Once upon a time they were groups of indigenous people united by
both blood and culture. Today they are often political entities, a
product of historic treaties. If they are lucky, they possess a
sense of community too.

Deluged with applications for membership, governments of some tribes
are turning to genetics to define who is a member (see "Tribal wars:
DNA testing divides American Indians"). They say that they merely
want to ensure that their grandchildren enjoy the benefits of
membership without opening the floodgates to everyone else.

Leaving aside the emotional turmoil caused when paternity testing
shows the father isn't the father, DNA testing puts biological
relationships before upbringing. Some worry that genetics will be
increasingly used to define tribal membership.

At first glance, it may seem reasonable to rely on genetic rather
than social factors. But what does the idea of "American Indian
blood" actually mean in the wake of generations of intermarriage?
Indeed, a study published last year showed that 28 members of the
Seaconke Wampanoag tribe possessed genetic markers associated with
African and western European heritage, but few American Indian
markers. Similarly, it is a fair bet that some non-American Indians
possess more American Indian blood than some members of federally
recognised tribes. As has been seen with warring factions elsewhere,
from the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, to the Serbs and Croats in the
Balkans, there's little difference between us in terms of our genes.

What next? What if tribes demanded genetic markers associated with
American Indian ancestry for membership? What if the US government
required genetic proof of indigenous heritage for tribes to be

These moves should be resisted. The notion of a tribe is a social
and political construct. If American Indians wish to retain their
sovereignty, they would be well advised to keep it that way.

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